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The Torch: In search of the perfect film – or audience?

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Making movies is fun – but also a business. A harsh reality to wake up to for some, but one that it is simply unavoidable to face if your pursuit of that glorious, mundane goal of “making it” isn’t meant to be a one-time endeavour.

The TorchSo unless you are a high-flying genius coming down on humanity as a predestined blessing (you’re welcome!), there are some serious questions to ask yourself and try to find a workable answer to. Where exactly does your responsibility lie in making a film? What is your ultimate aim? How do you define “success” in your work? Whom do you do this for? Who is your target audience? Will you be able to reach it?

Obviously, what it takes is a clear sense of direction, a perspective that is both and at the same time: comprehensive enough to go for it in as pointed a fashion as is necessary in order to control the effort; and one that is still broad enough to allow for the unexpected, the sudden opening up of a good fortune, which cannot be calculated in advance. It has been done before – some people have already mastered the task with amazing skill, even in Singapore. And it has happened before – events taking over as they develop a momentum of their own (much to the surprise of those affected).

If so, then where’s the formula? Give the crowd what they want – and start undressing? Now, this can hardly be it, can it? One cannot please everyone, and to my understanding it is even more important to be distinct rather than all-inclusive (however much we Germans are known for having a knack for it). If your original impulse, the unmistakable identity-factor sets you apart from the rest, why bother trying to force your inimitable subjectivity into a presumably more marketable instant dish? Besides, it won’t work anyway, since any second or third helping is always lacking in surprise and gratification is somewhat limited in both, isn’t it? So cherish diversity and occupy, embrace your niche. Canonical standards only breed a copying mentality bent on reproduction, not advancement.

Different schools of thought will propagate different ideas, trying to endow them with the authority of rules; but this is also a process with multiple players and in no way sanctified per se. The self-regulatory forces that constitute our public sphere – they will among themselves, through interaction and correction, arrive at a tableau of agreeable denominations to each aspect of the arts, or human life, of society as such. This elemental democratic principle applies no less to film, its evaluation and the constantly evolving array of genres, sub-genres and singular occurrences it has in store. It takes a mind willing and daring enough to expose itself to the given play so described, a mind that challenges the customary and pushes the boundaries of common sense (and expectation). Trial and error – this life ingredient has been disclosed some time ago. But still, it seems, orthodoxy isn’t just so easy to root out in many a field.

And to all of you who claim to be in love (with film) I say: re-read Plato, remember the Symposium, where he convinced us that to love means to grow: one another, and together. If art and film indeed are forms of communication as much as of self-expression (like I think they are), then this mutuality needs to apply and be inclusive of the viewer, who is not merely exposed to a motion picture, who is not just a buy-happy consumer, but the one being jointly, individually addressed. We already see a convincingly high level of sophistication on the part of our local audiences nowadays; and to my understanding there is every hope for it to be further developed. Eventually it is not just film practitioners who have to get this straight, but first and foremost the indispensable decision maker, they who facilitate a project to go ahead in production and promotion. It is them who must rise to their more than bureaucratic responsibility by answering not just to numbers, but to human minds as well that want to be challenged, especially so with our young – and this is a profoundly societal investment I’d say.

Here is to all marketing professionals: every movie finds its perfect audience, or do they? Then again, we know of course how some films can be more demanding than others (and more rewarding, too) like is the case with Jazz: it may take a while to get the hang of it, and some maturity as well, but when you make the little extra effort you’ll discover riches you would never have come to know of if it wasn’t for the pitch. So it is (or should be) with film: a slow process of capacity building, but ultimately it pays off in many ways. Just like one cannot manufacture talent, you will never get to a full-fledged appreciation thereof unless there is enough space for it to flourish, weather a storm or two and end up stronger than before as it has come to be a tested quality and taken deep root in its environs – the one and only place where it belongs and fully fits. I have no doubt that there is a sizeable portion of movie-goers in Singapore, as in any other developed country for that matter, who feel this way and are willing to be conscious, active consumers. Maybe they need to be targeted in more refined ways than your average mass market audience; again, speaking of that little extra effort that may get you a more comprehensive yield.

What would this refinement be then? Well, in selling a product as well as in producing content, the kind of intimately aware audience I have in mind here would never ask for the sterile perfection of something neatly packaged for easy consumption, sealed and closed. Instead, many of us (if I may say so) are looking for an experience that is engaging, gripping as it is activating your imagination and opens up before your inner nature to invite your interaction with what vision you’ve just taken (part) in. And for this to happen with any given film, there is this ominous gap, not a void, but the gap of interpretation opening up for the viewer. By reading what images you provide as a filmmaker, it is ultimately they who make your film, any work of art in fact, into a singular, an individual encounter – and there is life, as opposed to dead perfection, don’t you think? For if this universe were run on a principle of perfection, it’d be freezing cold and no life in it.

So it is allowed, in fact, it is mandatory to make mistakes on that assumed road of perfectibility – how else would we learn? We’re not talking about some loose cannon here, but educated, sensible folks entering into professionalism. There’s checks and balances in a system, a system which in Singapore today is acutely aware of its interconnectedness and in it for the long haul, gradually asserting itself. I for one would discard the notion that for fear of failing some questionable industry expectations on straight returns, first week box office success or (if nothing better then at least some) international festival hooray is the way forward for Singaporean film at this stage. There needs to be more freedom, some daring spirit and an entrepreneurship of a truly creative ken that recognizes art’s demand for time.

All this is not as aloof as some may think. What it comes down to is managing assets to finally take the next step when doing so would be natural – not a premature sell-out to standard procedures and the (ill fitting) logic of a business plan for the development of national character. Singapore is special and so is your language: Singlish/English, what’s right or wrong in this, I wonder? Be authentic – and if it comes to that, why, simply include Oxfordian subtitles, you can do that!

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1 Comment

  1. 7 March 2008 at 10:53 pm

    Great opinions here.

    I think you have directed the article to the right people. Film Executives, that mythic class of people that decide whether aspiring ideas may be translated to the screen, should without question look further than the box-office. Although Pragmatism cannot be chided (being a given condition of society), films created purely by motivations of commerce, bringing along all of the baggage that comes with it (eg. ‘General Audience’ satisfaction, etc), can only lead one way for cinema. And its not up.

    This is especially pointed for fledgling Singapore Cinema. Being first and foremost an Art (something that I think is not emphasized enough), I do think there is a crucial need for an environment of freedom and experimentation, before local Cinema can truly start to flourish. Rightly said, art demands time.

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